Recently the Board of Education Policy Committee has been reviewing Windsor Public School’s promotion and retention policy. Retention, or having a student repeat a grade, has become a somewhat controversial topic in education. A wealth of studies exist showing both positive and negative effects of retention. Some studies show a correlation between retention in early grades and dropping out of school early as a teenager. Others claim that retained students will suffer from social and emotional issues as a result of the retention decision. Still other studies decry the harmful effects of “social promotion,” or the decision to move a student to the next grade on the basis of his age alone, claiming that this practice compounds the difficulties a struggling student will face and makes it nearly impossible for the student to grasp new material, when they have not demonstrated a command of the material covered in the prior year. A recent study by the RAND Corporation addresses many of these issues. The study, entitled “Ending Social Promotion Without Leaving Children Behind” examines the attempt of the New York City school system to implement a strict promotion policy based on performance on the New York State assessments. The full study can be found here: http://www.rand.org/pubs/monographs/MG894.html
New York’s strict promotion and retention policy began with students in Grade 3 in 2003-2004. The program was expanded over time to include students in Grades 5, 7 and 8. In order to be promoted to the next grade, students were required to score at or above a Level 2 (out of 4 possible levels) on the English/Language Arts and Math portions of the New York State Assessments. The RAND study took place from March 2006 through August 2009. Overall, the findings showed improved student performance as a result of the promotion and retention policy. Students identified as needing improvement under the retention policy in the 5th grade outscored their comparable counterparts on 7th grade assessments. Students retained in 5th grade did better than their comparable, non-retained peers on 7th grade assessments. The results indicated that students who scored at Level 1 on assessments in the 5th grade and were then retained would score well within Level 2 on their 7th grade assessments. Going beyond just results on standardized assessments, the study also found that retained students did not report negative socioemotional effects as a result of the retention decision. In fact, they reported levels of confidence and sense of school belonging at comparable or higher levels than their peers. Even three years after retention, previously retained students reported a greater sense of school connectedness than both their non-retained at risk peers and not at risk peers.
What I found most promising, as well as most helpful in considering our own promotion and retention policy, was the information contained in the study about just how these gains were made. The policy focused on identifying struggling students early and providing them with additional instructional time, both in school and out of school. Schools were mandated to offer intensive interventions, such as Saturday school and a summer academy. If a student was deemed at risk of retention, they would be placed in summer academy, where the promotion decision would be reviewed after the completion of a summer assessment. The study found that schools that offered other intensive interventions, particularly one on one tutoring, increased the likelihood that their at risk students would go on to meet the promotion requirements. In speaking with staff, the authors of the study reported that the majority of principals and teachers were supportive of the policy, and found that it made parents and guardians more concerned about their children’s progress.
New York has recently modified its promotion and retention policy to not rely on assessment scores alone. The newest policy will continue to consider test scores but does not allow test performance alone to determine promotion. Even in the face of this change, the findings of the RAND study are useful as Windsor considers our own promotion and retention policy. The current Windsor Public School’s promotion and retention policy requires a system of promotion based on the “successful completion of the curriculum, attendance, personal and social maturity, performance on objective tests, and student demonstration of mastery of the Goals for Windsor Students.” The administrative regulation for the policy specifically states that social promotion is not acceptable. However, virtually no Windsor students are retained. Perhaps what is most applicable to Windsor is not only the results gained when students in New York were retained, but also the breadth of interventions put in place when the threat of retention was real. The RAND study appears to demonstrate that when a strict promotion and retention policy is in place, and is adhered to, an accountability system is created for the student, parents and educators alike. This creates an impetus to identify at risk students early, with the goal of realizing academic gains through intensive interventions during the school year, thus making retention unnecessary.